If you were a jazz pseud attempting to impress the cognoscenti, the name of Maynard Ferguson would not be one to drop. Of all the big-band leaders, he probably has the least credibility with purists, who deem him showy, loud and brash. The big band is a thundering king of the road in any case; even when it's tip-toeing softly through a gentle tune such as "L'il Darlin'" its gnarled exhaust and flapping HGV numberplates are visible through the petticoats. Listening to the Maynard Ferguson band, however, has been compared to being run over by a truck. But I would stand in the middle of the highway and beckon it on any day of the week - and going by the audience on Monday night at Ronnie Scott's, I'm not alone.
Not only was the club bursting at the seams, and with a very young audience too, but the merest glimpse of MF at his dressing room door, looking like John Goodman's elder brother, his belly preceding him by at least a foot, was greeted by the loudest, most sustained cheer I've heard in the club for at least 10 years, if not ever. Only if Bird himself were to rise from the grave and lead on to the Frith Street stage Diz, Getz, Mingus and Powell would it have been exceeded. The reason why this 75-year-old trumpeter can set a crowd of twentysomethings a-hollering and a-whooping like school's out for good is twofold. In his day, he could play higher than any trumpet player in the world - not for nothing was he introduced at one point as the Master of the Stratosphere - and he leads one of tightest, flashiest, shiniest and most exciting brass sections of all time. For sheer buzz at the audacity and punch, only the Buddy Rich Big Band compares.
MF is old now, and so limits himself to on-stage banter, brief statements of melody and improvisation, and short forays into space. His chops are still impressive; he may not be able to reach Pluto anymore, but he can still land on Mars, even if he's got to be back by teatime.
Then there's the tone. Like the very choicest cut of richly marbled, fat-laden beef, the MF sound hovers in the middle register, so luscious and heavy it's a miracle it can support itself, before the big man squares himself to the microphone, pushes out his belly, tightens his ass, and leaves a cholesterol trail behind him as he launches skywards. Upon reaching 30,000 feet, he envelops his craft in a wobbly vibrato; and then, with one last push, he goes even higher and we lose radio contact.
All of Ferguson's hits came out - "Macarthur Park", "Gonna Fly Now", "Chameleon", "Hey Jude" - whipping the crowd into a frenzy of ecstasy with a medley at the end of the first set. This echo-drenched, hard-swinging band with its unashamedly showy arrangements (performed by a first-rate group of young players) may not please the purists. But who cares? Leave them to their thin soup and dry bread. As one of Ferguson's album titles puts it: Si! Si! MF!
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